In China, one giant leap for womankind?

Not really. Even as China launched a woman into space, it was condemned for forcing another woman to have a late-term abortion.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP
In this May 26 photo, local women are transported for rice planting in Yingjiang, Yunnan Province, China.

In a country where “women hold up half the sky” in Mao Zedong’s celebrated phrase, and while one of their number orbits the globe far above the sky, Chinese women’s earthly rights are in trouble.

Major Liu Yang’s breakthrough as China’s first female astronaut and her current exploits in space aboard China’s experimental spacelab are symbolically important but irrelevant to most Chinese women, say scholars and feminists here. In a country where gender equality is a pillar of official political rhetoric, some key aspects of women’s status are being eroded.

The saturation press coverage that Liu has attracted since she blasted off last Saturday offers revealing insights into contemporary Chinese values.

Few of the gushing profiles have played up the qualities normally associated with a pilot/astronaut at the cutting edge of space science; instead one article by Xinhua, the state news agency, began simply “She is a wife.”

Another, in the state-owned China Daily, stressed how “modest and obedient” Liu had been as a girl.

Such traditionally feminine virtues are still highly prized in Chinese women, 60 years after the country’s Constitution declared that “women enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life.”

Indeed, official figures suggest that some of the economic, social, and political gains that women made in China during the first decades after the 1949 revolution are being rolled back.

“There is an imbalance in the way women’s social status has developed,” worries Jiang Yongping, a researcher at the government-sponsored Chinese Institute for Women’s Studies. “We see a group of educated and very successful women like Liu Yang who achieve great things, but in the less developed areas of China women’s education and health are still in bad shape.”

Survey says

Nor are social attitudes encouraging for women’s rights advocates. A nationwide official survey published last year found that the number of men – and women – who believe that “a woman’s place is in the home and the public sphere is for men” is on the rise: 62 percent of men believe that, up from 54 percent a decade ago, and 55 percent of women agree, up from 50 percent in 2000.

Another key metric, income, also suggests that women are losing ground to men, even as they grow wealthier overall from China’s economic boom. Twenty years ago rural women earned 79 percent of men’s wages; today they earn just 56 percent. In cities the proportion has dropped from 78 percent to 67 percent.

The survey also found signs of progress; the average Chinese woman today has been to school for nearly nine years, three years more than a decade ago and almost as long as the average man. The number of women reporting health checks has increased substantially.

“Clearly there has been huge progress in women’s social status since 1949,” when the revolution swept away feudal traditions such as footbinding, concubinage, and forced marriage, says Ms. Jiang.

China now stands in the middle of world rankings, measuring the gender gap published last year by the World Economic Forum, at 61 out of 135 nations.

Women in contrast

But a cartoon published on the Chinese Internet as Liu took off (and that was quickly censored) drew attention to the starkly contrasting fates that different women in China can meet: It depicted a rocket leaving a dead baby in its wake, and referred to both Liu and to a woman who had been forced by local officials earlier this month to abort her second baby at seven months, in line with China’s one child policy.

“Liu Yang’s mission is a sign of how strong the state is, how it can do anything,” says Ai Xiaoming, a feminist scholar in the southern city of Guangzhou. “But at the same time we see the state has not put enough of its power into stopping violence against women.”

“Both those images illustrate the state of Chinese women,” adds Hong Huang, a well-known magazine publisher and blogger.

“Each is as representative as the other. There are some pretty powerful women in our society … and there are some who have fallen into abysmal situations.”

Reverting to old inclinations?

Women in the middle, meanwhile, are often not making the social progress they hoped for. Their salaries lag behind those of their male colleagues, says Jiang, who co-wrote the national survey of women’s status, partly because “most women are in more junior jobs, and more men become leaders.”

Retrograde attitudes toward women’s place in society are gaining ground, Jiang believes, because “it is more difficult for women to get into politics” from where they might influence opinions.

Women are almost invisible at the top of the Communist Party, which rules China. All nine members of the Standing Committee, the party’s top body, are men. There is one woman on the 25-member Politburo and just 13 women among the 204 members of the Central Committee.

Some women blame free-market economic reforms for the rollback in women’s status. When the state and the Communist Party controlled every aspect of Chinese life they could impose equal salaries and an ideology. Now, says Ms. Hong, “people have reverted to their natural Confucian inclinations to treat women as objects.”

Certainly women who make their careers more important than their prospects of founding a family are regarded as strange and “viewed negatively,” says Jiang. And though sex discrimination is rife in Chinese business “there is not enough implementation of anti-discrimination laws,” complains Professor Ai.

For some, like Jiang, the problem is that “Chinese society is still pretty traditional.” For others, it goes deeper. “Nobody takes the law seriously in China,” says Hong. “And until there is an independent judicial system there will be no way to enforce women’s rights.”

“It’s the system that generates all these problems,” agrees Ai. “They won't be solved until China is a democracy.” 

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